By Paul A. Smith of the Journal Sentinel
Wolves have been in Wisconsin at least as long as humans.
Like most long-term relationships, dealings between the species are complex.
Social, big, smart and strong, wolves have been viewed by humans as competitors for much of the last 10,000 years. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that we exterminated them from the state in the 20th century.
Wednesday marked the start of a new era, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a delisting rule for gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region effective Jan. 27.
The rule removes wolves in Wisconsin and surrounding states from protections of the federal Endangered Species Act.
State management plans then will be implemented.
“Fantastic news,” said Scott Craven, recently retired professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin. “It’s been a long time in coming and a very welcome decision.”
Under state and federal protections, the wolf population in Wisconsin increased from 25 in 1980 to 34 in 1990, 248 in 2000 and 825 in 2011, according to late winter estimates by the Department of Natural Resources.
In its wolf management plan, the DNR established a statewide goal of 350 wolves outside Indian reservations.
“We’re far above the goal,” Craven said. “Delisting should be seen by all parties as a successful recovery for the wolf.”
Two previous delistings for the region were challenged in court and overturned by judges; some plaintiffs in previous lawsuits have said they will review the rule and decide whether to sue again.
Kurt Thiede, administrator of the DNR’s Land Division, said he hoped that if lawsuits are filed, the judge will not impose an injunction to prevent the state from implementing its wolf management plan as the case winds through the judicial process.
Regardless of legal action, the wolf continues to expand in number and range in Wisconsin.
The animals are proving capable of exploiting habitats not previously thought suitable.
“No one would have predicted 20 years ago that we’d have wolves in northern Waupaca County,” said Adrian Wydeven, DNR wolf ecologist. “But we’re learning more each year.”
Wolf observations classified as “probable” or “possible” were received from 55 of the state’s 72 counties in 2010.
The reasons for the expansion: prey (including deer), protection and, to a degree, human tolerance.
The last factor is being tested as more wolves have meant more attacks on domestic livestock and pets.
A 1999 wolf plan assumed annual reimbursements for wolf depredation of about $30,000. But the state paid a record $203,943 in wolf damage claims in 2010, up from $91,328 in 2009 and $134,752 in 2008.
State records show 47 farms sustained wolf depredation in 2010, compared with 28 in 2009. And there were 14 cases of wolves attacking dogs near residences last year, double the previous year.
Though there is no record of a wolf attack on a human in recent years in Wisconsin, there have been several incidents of wolves showing dangerous tendencies near people, according to the state. Sixteen wolves were killed by U.S. Department of Agriculture and state officials in 2010 because of concerns for human safety.
Final figures for wolf depredation were not available for 2011.
The state now enters a new phase – managing the wolf to a level that is both biologically safe for the species and socially acceptable for humans.
The state’s wolf management plan, previously approved by the federal government, allows state agents and landowners to kill wolves “near documented cases of depredation or harassment.”
“To be honest, to have wolves get a little more cautious about people wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Craven said. “Right now they are seeing people up close and personal and I don’t think that’s a good thing for us or the wolves.”
The state’s wolf management plan does not include a “public wolf harvest,” a hunting or trapping season.
But it’s likely on the horizon.
The DNR would have to create administrative rules to hold such seasons. Or the Legislature could enact a state statute.
State Reps. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford) and Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake) announced plans last week to introduce legislation in January that will “provide the DNR with the tools necessary to manage Wisconsin’s burgeoning and predatory gray wolf population.”
No details were released, but it’s likely to include hunting and trapping.
Though such legislation will no doubt ratchet up emotions regarding the delisting, modern wildlife management has a sterling record for species protection.
“The wolf was decimated largely through poisoning,” said David Mech, wolf specialist and senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. “Once a species is managed through modern wildlife strategies in this country, it is in a very safe position.”
In addition, sales of wolf hunting or trapping licenses would provide essential – and possibly very substantial – revenue to the DNR for its wolf management program.
Mech said the federal government will monitor the state wolf management activities for five years and could “intervene if necessary.”
“But the wolf population in the Upper Midwest is large enough where, by fair chase tactics, it wouldn’t be eliminated,” said Mech.
A wolf researcher for more than half a century, Mech, 74, said it was satisfying to have the species being delisted and doing so well.
“In Poland they went through this three times,” Mech said. “They wiped them out, then wanted them back, and so forth.”
“I’m hoping we can minimize those extreme parts of the cycle. It’s nice to have them around but like so many things, their numbers need to be controlled.”